Not all men are focused on shaving it all off or staving off loss

A year ago, clumps of Victor Dos Santos’s hair would fall out in the shower and he’d wake up to find stray strands on his pillow. Family members taunted the 24-year-old video editor about his blossoming bald spots. Then he saw an Instagram ad for Keeps, a startup selling finasteride, a prescription hair-loss-prevention pill. After a brief online consultation with a doctor, he placed an order. “I was like, ‘OK let me show you guys, I’m going to take these pills and see if my hair grows back.’” Grow back it did. And show them he has. For seven months, across 40 Instagram posts, the Los Angeleno has broadcast the triumphant return of his hairline.

This public catalog of hirsutal ups and downs bears little resemblance to the painfully private ways men have often handled hair loss in the past. A balding man might comb his few remaining strands over his pate, praying that co-workers would ignore the obviously unconvincing result. Even more desperate hair-shedders might plop on shaggy toupees and just stop making eye contact. Tennis great Andre Agassi was so ashamed of his hair loss that he wore a wig when playing in the 1990 French Open, a fact he ’fessed up to only 19 years later in his biography “Open.”

Even effective methods like Rogaine or hair plugs were discussed in hushed tones. A 1991 Rogaine TV ad didn’t mention hair loss, hawking instead a videotape that would reveal the “complete story” if you were bold enough to order it. When men did let their hairline slide into oblivion, it defined them negatively. See: George Costanza, the mercilessly mocked sidekick on “Seinfeld.”

That began to change in 2017 with the introduction of a trio of startup brands—Hims, Keeps and Roman—that talked in refreshingly frank, even witty ways about their products’ potential to help men counteract hair loss. About three years prior, the patent for finasteride (previously held by Merck & Co. in the U.S., which marketed the drug as Propecia) expired, opening the door for these New York-based brands to sell an inexpensive, generic version—at around $20 a month. The companies also sell affordable hair solutions containing over-the-counter minoxidil, the active ingredient in Rogaine. According to Dr. Marc Avram, a dermatologist in New York City who specializes in hair loss, multiple studies have proven that these two medicines can help counter hair loss and regenerate growth. What makes these companies new is the shame-free way they’re selling the drugs, through snappy sites, with sunny marketing (“baldness can be optional”) and Instagram-worthy packaging.

These companies haven’t eradicated baldness. But they appear to have lessened the stigma around hair loss. The men I spoke with who use these products don’t bemoan their less-than-abundant coifs. While in line at Walt Disney World, one related his balding journey for all his fellow amusement-park lovers to hear. Tyler Wendling, 25, a graphic designer in Owosso, Mich., said he’s used Hims’s products for two years with encouraging consequences and turned his brother onto them: “I showed him the results that I was having and he’s like ‘I need to start this.’”

Shoppers describe ordering these products as a painless experience. “You just go on a website and sign up,” said Mr. Dos Santos. Over-the-counter minoxidil will be shipped to your house in days, no questions asked. Though finasteride is a prescription medication requiring doctor approval, each company offers customers the ease of corresponding with a network of doctors digitally. You fill out a questionnaire, snap some scalp selfies (if required), and if a doctor thinks you need it, they’ll write a prescription which the brand will fill. Andrew Dudum, the founder and CEO of Hims, noted that 70% of the company’s transactions occur on mobile phones.

Digital convenience entices 20- and 30-something men who are used to buying just about everything off Amazon. According to the American Hair Loss Association, two-thirds of American men experience some hair loss by the age of 35, a stat that both Keeps and Hims representatives cited when discussing the customers they’re after.

The brands also propose complementary products: Hims includes a biotin gummy to “strengthen hair” in its “Hair Power Pack,” while Keeps sells a ketoconazole dandruff shampoo. Crucially, the look of all these products diverges from an austere Rogaine sprayer. The handsome packaging means men can shamelessly plop it in their bathroom. Roman’s finasteride bottles are as minimalist as an AirPod case; Hims’s tubes are like a more masculine version of cosmetics brand Glossier’s packaging; and Keep’s cherry-red logo calls to mind Netflix’s. “I could go to a grocery store and get Rogaine, but it’s not really appealing to look at,” said Mr. Wendling, who appreciates the “beautiful packaging” of Hims products.

“In the last 20 years [treating hair loss] has become almost as much maintenance as vanity,” explained Dr. Avram, who doesn’t refer patients to any of the aforementioned companies but has observed a decrease in his patients’ fear around hair loss. He summed up their feelings as “I need to watch my diet, I need to get my teeth in good shape and I need my hair to be good too.” (All three companies also sell medicine for erectile dysfunction, another ailment men have long loathed discussing.)

For Bobby Prokenpek, 39, a photographer in Ventura, Calif., the decision to use Hims minoxidil products is just part of a set of lifestyle changes he’s made as 40 approaches. “I wouldn’t call it a midlife crisis,” he said. “I’d say it’s more like I just want to get back to a comfortable place with my health, nutrition, everything, even just the way I look.”

Discussing treatments is suddenly fashionable. On Instagram, satisfied shoppers tag Hims, Keeps and Roman in photos showcasing their follicle revivals. While it’s refreshing (even jarring) to witness men discussing their hair loss in Roman ads or in Keeps’s social media posts and while there’s clearly less embarrassment around balding, the end goal is still to re-establish a full head of hair. The pop-culture hierarchy continues to reflect the primacy of men with a lot of locks, from actor Jason Momoa with his flowing mane to Timothée Chalamet who tosses about an Elvis-like pompadour. A healthy head of hair is still seen as an asset.

In an attempt to flip the script, some men believe the more radical way of embracing hair loss is to lose it all. “Every [piece of] messaging around bald or balding men was fear-based,” said Karamo Brown, the co-host on “Queer Eye,” known for his shiny hairless scalp. “It was, ‘You’re not going to have the girl you want, you’re not going to have the life you want.’” He was once so afraid of being exposed as bald that he drew on a fake hairline with mascara. This month, Mr. Brown and his business partners launched Mantl, a personal care company peddling products like a two-in-one face-and-scalp moisturizer and “no-shine” blotting sheets to bald men. Co-founder and CEO Peter Ricci said the company hopes to foster a “community” around baldness. Mantl’s website has a section titled “The Bald Journey” with stories of men embracing the cue-balled look, and it hosts a private Facebook group where men can go for tips.

Not all men are focused on shaving it all off or staving off loss. Some see doing nothing as the boldest approach. Jude Law appears to have let his hairline recede unimpeded; Prince William is very publicly letting his locks evaporate; and while George Costanza radiated shame, “Seinfeld” creator Larry David’s barely there ringlet of hair is an endearing signature. Perhaps these men, seemingly at ease, represent the real dawning of a new hair day.